Recently a colleague asked me for a list of the top things to focus on in year one. If you’re a first-year teacher wondering the same now that you’ve passed the midway point, let me first say congratulations for making it this far. And here are some things to keep in mind to finish the year strong.
I’m in my fifth year teaching at the secondary level, and have had my fair share of tough years. I started out at a middle school with an emergency alternative license after two years of teaching first-year college composition. I had no secondary level teaching experience. I had no idea what true classroom management was. I was still teaching online courses while completing my alternative teaching license program, and caring for my mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. I threw myself into the fire that year, but in that fire I forged my pedagogical foundation.
Tips for Handling the Second Half of a Tough Year
1. Keep at it: Wake up, teach, sleep, repeat. You have survived one full semester, and that’s no easy feat. You can do it again. Breathe, believe in yourself, and take it one day at a time. And don’t forget to eat.
2. Reinforce routines and procedures: You’ve established routines and procedures, but you should reflect on them. Take a moment to think about questions such as these:
- Is your system for turning in/passing back work effective?
- Are hard copy assignments necessary, or would an online class management system, such as Google Classroom, be better?
- What bugged you in class management in the first semester? What new classroom policies could you implement to manage this?
- What small changes to your own way of organizing work would make things easier and more efficient for you?
Thinking through your organization system, flow of assignments, expectations, and even classroom layout can all be critical to your success.
3. Use the lesson planning format that works for you: I use PowerPoint to plan rather than a traditional lesson plan template. It allows me to see linearly how a lesson progresses from one day to the next, so I’m able to plan a week or more in advance when following a very basic unit plan. Displaying a PowerPoint each day also gives students something visual to follow.
While I’ve used lesson templates with some degree of success, it usually took too much of the very little planning time I had. For me, PowerPoint was a faster, more efficient system. Find the system and format that works for you to visualize a whole unit or quarter and to plan daily lessons a week or more in advance. You’ll find that you use your time more effectively when you develop an organic system that never leaves you feeling unprepared.
4. Stay consistent in using classroom management strategies: Classroom management was the biggest struggle for me during year one, as it is for many teachers. Nothing in a classroom can go right without management. By now you know your kids and have probably identified some strategies that work with them.
If you’re struggling and need to strengthen this area of your practice, observe other teachers, ask your administration to send you to professional development seminars focused on management, and practice some of the key best practices: Build positive relationships with students, have consistent standards, use positive narration, etc.
The second semester is a chance to hit the reset button and make changes in your management strategies if you haven’t yet found ones that work well in your classroom with your students.
5. Leave the grading and planning at school: In the first few months of teaching, you probably spent hours at home each evening grading or planning. That is normal and often necessary, but it’s not a habit you want to form if you expect teaching to be a sustainable career. Even if it means staying an hour after school once or twice a week, try to get to a place where you don't take it home.
Teaching is a higher calling and can change the world, one student at a time, but at the end of the day it’s also a job. When your energy reserves are running low, remember that you deserve a life outside of school. If you don’t get something graded by the following day, or even the following week, try not to beat yourself up. You did as much as you could within the span of the workday.
Complete tasks during your plan periods in order of priority. And remember, every single assignment does not need to be graded—skim some work just as a quick check for understanding and give yourself permission to not go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.
6. Let people help and support you, but only take what you need: Beg, borrow, and steal ideas from other teachers. Take advice that works for you and forget the rest. Don't feel obligated to be a mirror of your mentor teacher or take every single piece of advice thrown at you—including this advice I’m giving you.
Every teacher, just like every student, is unique. Don’t force yourself to be a carbon copy of a veteran teacher you look up to. Use this second semester to develop your own style.